Haim Mazar is a fairly new voice in the world of film composing, but he’s been involved in a variety of shows and film, that many will recognize, for a number of years. I spoke with him recently about his work on The Iceman and was grateful to his generosity and ability to discuss the mechanics of the score. While there has been mixed reception to the film, his work is quite stunning and finds a way of calling out eras of music, honing in on the details so intrinsic to their value, without simply mimicking.
Garrett Tiedemann: From what I could learn you are still fairly new to the scene, but the last few years have really been great for you working in television and film. What brought you to the business and how are you finding your way through it?
Haim Mazar: I discovered film music when I first started studying at Berklee College of Music. It all started one night when I was working at the Berklee library—while shelving books I came across an introductory book to film scoring. Up until then, I had been focused on musical directing, arranging, orchestrating, and playing. (I grew up playing classical piano since I was 5 years old). These are all great tools that were very useful for me when I decided I wanted to focus on composing, especially composing for film, which tends to be very eclectic. After graduating Berklee I moved to Los Angeles where I got my first job working with film composer John Frizzell (Office Space, Alien Resurrection), who really became my mentor and helped me get my foot in the door. After working with John for a couple of years, it felt very natural to focus on my own composing career, and thankfully things have been going really well. I have found through my own experience that if you have the skills and talent, this town (Los Angeles) is all about relationships, which are key to getting work.
GT: How did you get attached to scoring The Iceman?
HM: I first heard about The Iceman (Richard Kuklinski) when I was about 16 years old and still living in Israel. That’s when I saw the HBO documentary about him, which stuck with me. About two years ago I heard about this project and I knew immediately that I had to be part of it. I decided to take the unconventional route and personally reach out to the director. This was no easy task, and it actually took me six months to get through to him. I eventually got his phone number through a mutual friend, and he agreed to meet with me. We had a short discussion about the film, and it seemed like we both had the same musical vision for it. After the meeting, I went back to my studio and wrote about 30 minutes of music as demos, which I then sent to Ariel Vromen (the director) and he really loved it.
GT: Did you have any hesitancy going into the project? Did you worry about your approach or what might be feasible to bring to this type of narrative?
HM: I think that when you first start to write a score and you are looking at an empty page, it’s always a scary feeling for every composer. Once I found the right tone for the film, things were smoother and easier. However, the biggest challenge throughout the entire process was to always find the balance where I am helping the narrative of the film and pushing the story forward without being too literal. Because the film has such strong performances by such an amazing cast, I was really being careful not to intrude or get in the way of that.
GT: Two of the primary aesthetic choices seem to be guitar, especially its feedback, and percussion. Are these two primary instruments for you as a composer and performer or was the sound generated by their conversation just right for the work?
HM: Percussion is something that I really enjoy producing myself, and for this movie it was clear from the beginning that it would have some action-type moments, as well as an overall pulse that the film required, and percussion is great for that. I did end up using a lot of electronic beats and I experimented with live percussion recording, which I then synthesized and manipulated to create multiple layers of these hybrid percussion loops throughout the film. As for the guitar sounds, those were actually also a hybrid of live electric guitar recordings, which were heavily processed, as well as the use of EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) to control some of the electric guitar-like sounds.
GT: The score has quite a cold sensibility. Do you sense this? Can you talk a bit about what went into that construction and how you achieved the specifics?
HM: This was something that Ariel (the director) and I discussed early on while he was still finishing his script. He went for a very cold, dark, and gritty look for the film, and it felt natural to support that “cold as ice” tone with an appropriately dark score. To achieve that I created a large palette of unique and custom built sounds, mostly pads and evolving drones and pretty much any type of atmospheric sound I could create that I felt would go well with the look of the film. This process requires a lot of trial and error to see which sounds “stick” and marry well with the picture. Melodically, I kept everything very simple and minor-based, going mostly for downward motions with the orchestra and sometimes using ambiguous keys for harmonic progressions and chord voicing. I also used a lot of processed muted trumpet, which gave the score another layer of cool, almost “film noir-ish” vibe.
GT: There are many hints at other scores and composer’s work without being mere retread or replication. It calls to mind ’70s espionage thriller with bits of action/suspense while maintaining a certain horror/violence quality that carries regret to the narrative. Were there any specific composers or film scores that you were drawing from in composing this piece? Were there any films you specifically drew from for inspiration?
HM: It was definitely important for me to portray the different periods and pay homage to the era. One of the tools to do so was by incorporating these hip ’70s orchestral arrangements and harmonies with the right touch of jazz and noir. I didn’t listen to any particular scores or composers while I was composing, but I’m certainly a big fan of the genre and some of my favorite composers include Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, and John Barry, whose music definitely influenced me throughout the years.
GT: There is quite a substantial sound design component to the score. Did you collaborate with the sound designers in any way? Was there a good understanding at the beginning of how the sound and score would support the film?
HM: I find that in today’s modern filmmaking, the line between score and sound design is often blurry. When it comes down to it, it’s really about what works best for the scene and the story at that moment. We had early discussions only about a few specific spots that we knew would be big sound design moments or big score moments that would require me to take a more sound design-ish approach. A good example of this is the scene when Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) shoots Leo Marks (Robert Davi) inside a closed car. There is a moment when there is a ringing sound and a sense of chaos. We knew that we would have to create an effect of being “inside” Richard’s head as his ears were ringing from the gunshot and as he realizes that his world is spinning out of his control. We ended up achieving that with a combination of some of my ringing tones that I created early on, which were indicated in the script, and the sound design team added some of their own sounds, which got mixed together with my score.
GT: The opening piece on the record has a series of strings that first seem in line but eventually diverge a bit, bringing in the piano, percussion, and horns to create a really ominous presence. It’s a good representation of what the entire score accomplishes and the feel of the overall record. How did you achieve this sound? Where in the process did this find you?
HM: Funny enough it’s one of the last pieces I wrote for the film, possibly even the last. It was originally written for a montage sequence at the end of the second act of the film, but then the director and editor loved it so much they decided to use it twice. I remember Ariel told me he wanted it to sound “beautifully tragic” and it was also supposed to blend with some on-screen footage of a jazz band playing while Richard and Deborah are slow dancing to the music. Musically speaking, it’s a fairly simple piece, but I definitely paid a lot of attention to the way that everything got blended together and the dynamic of it all. It was also important for me to establish the period so I was flirting with that ’70s noir vibe by using the muted trumpet over the strings, drums, and piano.
GT: Is there anything you thought to do but didn’t or anything that was cut that you particularly wish hadn’t been?
HM: Half way through post production, me and Robert Davi, who plays Leo Marks in the film, wanted to produce a song together that would play as a source piece during one of the holiday scenes in the film. We almost got to record a version of the song Angel Eyes together but unfortunately it never panned out. Davi has an amazing show in which he sings Sinatra covers. I’m a big fan of the Great American Songbook and Sinatra in particular, so I was really excited to do something with Davi. Hopefully I will get to collaborate with him on a different project.
GT: What’s next for you?
HM: I am getting ready to start some new projects in the fall, but unfortunately I can’t speak about them at this time.